The marks most of us leave, even those etched in stone, eventually wash away. That’s why the Guinness Book of World Records gets revised every year. Ironically, the rare thing that does survive is often tinged with death. For instance, Romeo and Juliet’s romance ends in side-by-side suicides just days after the teens meet. If they’d had a happier ending, it’s doubtful that William Shakespeare’s play would be produced year after year for more than half a millennium. Indeed, there were adaptations, some even eclipsing the original for a while in popularity, which ended with Juliet waking from her slumber just in time to stop Romeo from killing himself. These versions died with the nineteenth century.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is currently running on Broadway with Orlando Bloom and downtown at the Classic Stage Company with Elizabeth Olsen. The dueling productions have been left bloodied by most critics and will soon be forgotten, but a new musical adaptation, The Last Goodbye at San Diego’s Old Globe, has a shot at making a more lasting impression. It tries something fresh, wedding a slimmed-down version of the Bard’s text to songs written or covered by Jeff Buckley. Some of it comes off as a shotgun marriage. Having the cast sing “Hallelujah”—both Buckley and Leonard Cohen’s biggest commercial hit—over the teen lovers’ corpses seems inevitable, and plays as a benediction. But to deliver “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do you?” to a character who’s been singing for the past two-plus hours takes us out of the moment. Still, much of the production works and, if nothing else, makes a strong case that several of Buckley’s own songs should survive even without the benefit of his glorious voice.
Buckley shared with his father, legendary singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, a world-class upper register and the craft to showcase its technical and expressive range. On such songs as “Lover You Should’ve Come Over,” “Last Goodbye,” and “Grace,” the younger Buckley let loose a wail which cut to the quick of romantic ardor and heartache. His passionately vulnerable sensibility and tragic early death, which he also shares with his father, has helped generate an enduring following despite his having finished just one full-length album. If there was a troubadour Romeo for the fin of the last siècle, it was Buckley. Credit Michael Kimmel for astutely recognizing this in conceiving The Last Goodbye.
Unlike West Side Story and many other musicals based on the Bard’s work, Kimmel’s libretto sticks largely to the playwright’s iambs. This sets Buckley’s lyrics up for failure. How can his songs up the ante from the book if they’re competing with the acme of dramatic poetry and prose? Kimmel tries to help by editing the play down to its classic plot turns and poetic chestnuts. While this sacrifices much of the original’s complexity and beauty, it allows Buckley’s songs to provide the production’s emotional release.
Kimmel’s conceit creates another challenge: The score is all back-catalogue, with nothing written expressly for the play. But besides the finale and one other instance, Kimmel has done a wonderful job of finding the best places within the text to place Buckley’s songs. In one example, the exiled Romeo sings the title song when he takes his leave of Juliet: “This is our last goodbye/I hate to feel the love between us die/But it’s over/Just hear this and then I’ll go/You gave me more to live for/More than you’ll ever know.”
The group numbers are similarly well-situated (“Witches’ Rave” is sung at the masked ball), but most are paired with Buckley’s more undistinguished rock n’ roll work. Fortunately, the second-act selections consist mostly of Buckley’s signature ballads, and their plangent beauty gives both Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Romeo and Talisa Friedman’s Juliet a great opportunity to rend our hearts.
Similarly, Alex Timbers’s production also comes into its own as it progresses. Timbers is the theater world’s new wunderkind. First with his own company, Les Freres Corbusier, and now as a director on others’ projects, he’s had a decade’s run creating buoyant musical happenings distinguished by collegiate cleverness. A Very, Merry Unauthorized Christmas Scientology Pageant and
The darkly serious tone of The Last Goodbye is rare territory for Timbers, and while an artist needs to stretch for his career to have longevity, he pulls some artistic muscles here. For example, his what-was-he-thinking staging of “New Year’s Prayer,” in which the lovers consummate their marriage surrounded by Laurence and his fellow singing friars, dismayingly evokes the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.
He has Armstrong Johnson’s superbly performed Romeo sing the “Grace” chorus of “Wait in the fire/Wait in the fire/Wait in the fire” while wading in water, and the actor’s dripping-wet approach to the crypt distractingly brings to mind Buckley’s own death, which occurred when he went for a late-night swim fully clothed. Timbers also panders, having the lithe and toned Friedman and Armstrong Johnson disrobe down to their skivvies in half-light during a scene change, only to then have them dress as soon as the lights come up. I’ve got nothing against watching beautiful young flesh, but I’d prefer the prurience to be a little less obvious.
Before I yell “Timber!” to the director’s deservedly vaunted reputation, it should be noted that the degree of difficulty here is precipitously high. Timbers deserves credit, along with the remarkable orchestrator Kris Kukul, choreographer Sonya Tateh, and the designers, for creating a cohesive world that brings a contempo sensibility to age-old Verona. Christopher Barreca’s multi-tier, interlocking-unit set and Justin Townsend’s best-in-show lighting dazzle. Jennifer Moeller’s chic costumes use a too-cool-for-school black-and-gray color palette, but it does stirringly evoke a warring society perpetually in mourning.
Spring Awakening seems the prototype here. But that show, with its relatively unknown source material adapted from another language and an original score, had it easy compared to this. The songs and the singers, as good as they are, may not elevate Shakespeare or the Buckley originals. But if The Last Goodbye is a mixed blessing, that doesn’t mean it’s without grace. There’s been talk of further development of the material followed by a New York transfer, so it looks like the production will get a well-deserved shot at lasting at least a little while longer.
The Last Goodbye runs at The Old Globe through November 3rd.